American Catholicism Assessed From Within

by Gustave Weigel

Father Gustave Weigel has been a close observer of the Protestant scene for a number of years. He has given considerable attention to Protestant theology and to ecumenical problems, and his review of the first volume of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology is considered one of the best written to date. A Jesuit, Father Weigel taught for six years at the Catholic University of Chile. He taught ecclesiology at Woodstock College in Woodstock, Maryland.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis in 1958. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis. Used by permission. This text was prepared by John R. Bushell.


An editor of a Protestant journal of opinion recently stated that one of the current tasks facing a Protestant religious journalist is to tell American Protestants that America is no longer a Protestant country.

An editor of a Protestant journal of opinion recently stated that one of the current tasks facing a Protestant religious journalist is to tell American Protestants that America is no longer a Protestant country. Whether Protestants have to be informed of this fact may possibly be debated but the fact itself cannot be. Yet no one will draw the illegitimate conclusion that America is already or is becoming a Catholic land. Percentage-wise, the Catholic Church has not grown much in the last forty years.

But in this land of many religious minorities how are we to interpret the Catholic reality? Sociological studies have been made but the limitations and detachment with which such studies are produced rarely shed great light on the lived existence of the Catholic collectivity. An investigation must be made from the inside. Yet this is a difficult task. There certainly is something that can be called a collective consciousness of the total group, but to get at it one must rely on an individual consciousness that is hopelessly hemmed in by its own individuality. Nevertheless, it is worth while to make an attempt at investigation even under such precarious conditions.

Aristotle wanted definitions to be derived from genus and differentiae. The American Catholic Church is therefore a Catholic church and different from all other Catholic churches because it is American. This may seem to say little, but actually it says much. Differences are not accidentals tacked on to the genus. They suffuse it totally.

There is no call here to describe generic Catholicism. Our effort will be directed to the American differentiae. The American component of American Catholicism obviously entered into it by way of history Into a land staked off as the claim of Protestant groups, the Catholic intruded. This intrusion came not as a single blow but in a steady flow over 150 years. By and large the Catholic came either as a non-English speaker or as an Irishman. In either case he was culturally alien to the British possessors of the land. Religiously he was not only different but suspect.

Whether we like it or not, Protestants and Catholics are inevitably related to each other by the concept of opposition, and the opposition is stronger the nearer we approach the moment of the split of one from the other. Today we are all striving manfully to overcome the sense of opposition, but we are descendants of the past and history works in all of us.

The first Catholics, therefore, walked into a hostile environment. This does not mean that there were barbarous persecutions or gross inhumanity. The persecutions were petty and the individual Catholic ( could and did avoid them either through personal friendship with individual Protestants or by taking refuge in a ghetto built by himself and his kind.

The immigrating Catholics were also, in general, poor folk escaping from the hardships proper to lower social classes of Europe. They did not bring with them much learning, nor even a great awareness of the good of learning. The capital the Catholic brought with him was his will to improve his secular condition and his readiness to work hard in his attempts. Those who did not have this capital returned to their lands of origin or soon died.

As the English know, America, in spite of its English roots, is not England. It is a new thing with subtle power. The American Dream, or whatever we wish to call it, had (and pray God that it still has) a transforming power that it infused into its own, making them one. The European Catholics who came to America became American. The result was that the Catholicism they brought with them became American as well.

It was not done without growing pains. Some of the Europeans of the nineteenth century did not want an American Catholic Church but a confederation of European Catholic churches on American soil. They were led by German spokesmen, but World War I showed the Americans of German stock that they themselves were Americans and not Germans. The whole American Catholic Church suddenly became aware of itself as Catholic and American and has never since lost that awareness.

From 1918 onwards, Catholicism in America took on a new vitality because of its own achieved identification. The result was that any clear-eyed observer could see that the American Catholic Church was a power and a force in the land. It was no longer struggling to survive or to be accepted. It had "arrived."

However, the effects of its earlier history showed up clearly. There was a sudden pride of achievement that was more adolescent than mature. Catholicism became cocky and would tolerate no criticism from within or without. Where it could, it "threw its weight around." T he older fear and resentment toward Protestants now turned into smug, but edgy, aloofness. One could almost hear the American Catholics say: "You have had your day; now we have ours."

The pain and distress involved in the Al Smith campaign of 1928 was a salutary and chastening experience. Even if America was not religiously Protestant, it was by no means pro-Catholic. In consequence, a more objective self-examination slowly spread over the group. Catholics began to criticize themselves and did so with a candor that should have amazed non-Catholics, but they did not even notice.

The basic weakness inherent in the Catholic community was its lack of scholarship. It had loyalty, organization, and numerical strength but it had too little intellectualism, in spite of its growing educational system built laboriously by the Catholics without outside aid. This weakness could not become conscious until a sufficient number of American Catholic intellectuals were formed; and they were being formed in the '30s and '40s. The result is that voices have been since heard and embarrassment felt. However, these things are themselves the first steps of coming improvement.

At the present moment, the American Catholic Church is neither a harassed minority nor a belligerent group. It is more prone to conservatism than radical change. Its tendency is toward American chauvinism rather than anything anti-American. It is rather contemptuous of what is foreign, even when visible in the Catholic Church elsewhere. Its generosity, activism, and optimism are probably more American than Catholic.

One thing American Protestants must recognize, though they are slow to do so, is that American Catholics are no threat to them, nor do they wish to be. The diminution of Protestant power understandably makes Protestants nervous, but there is no ground in Catholicism for their nervousness.

The American Catholics do not consider Protestantism as their great preoccupation nor do they pay much attention to it. They arrange their own affairs and conversations with little or no concern for the Protestant dimension of our country. At times they are faced with certain movements that have a nuisance value, as for example the Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (POAU) that Catholics fortunately do not identify with the Protestant community. (In fact, it must be embarrassing for many Protestants to see this group use in its proper name a label that is so much bigger than it and that means something better than the POAU movement.) However, in general the American Catholics do not define themselves or their activities in terms of Protestant reference.

This attitude, besides the advantage of eliminating maintained hostility for Protestantism, also has a palpable disadvantage. Although American Catholics have many friends and relatives who are Protestants, yet they know so little about Protestantism and show no great desire to know more. It would almost be true to say that the American Catholics, in constant amicable relationships with Protestants, ignore Protestantism. They are not curious to find out the doctrines of Protestantism, nor its ways of worship and structure. It is not clear in their minds what distinguishes an Episcopalian from a Methodist. Luther vaguely means something, but Lutherans are supposed to be undifferentiated Protestants with a German background. The multitude of the more angular, smaller denominations simply confuses the Catholic without stimulating him to clarity his confusion.

In such a situation the American Catholic is totally unprepared for ecumenical dialogue, though this is the task that our moment calls for. There is no Catholic hostility to ecumenism. There is just a great ignorance of what it is and why it is important.

Some few voices have been raised in American Catholic circles pointing sympathetically to the ecumenical movement, and they have been heard. But they have not made a deep or wide impact. Perhaps the few Catholic ecumenists will manage to arouse great interest in their work, and there are signs that the young Catholics, clerical and lay, are waking up to its importance. However, as of the moment much is being accomplished. The American Catholic makes his own the principle lately enunciated by Professor Oscar Cullmann -- that Catholicism and Protestantism are irreconcilable. But unlike Cullmann, the American Catholic does not see that much must yet be done in Christian charity.

The electoral campaign of 1960 is already aborning. The presence of Senator John Kennedy among the possible candidates will produce intranquility In God's goodness it may be the occasion for Catholic ecumenical action. Perhaps it may even do the contrary.

Certainly the ecumenical council to he summoned by Pope John XXIII should produce some good fruits, at least in the world-wide preparations for the council sessions. Just now, with these possibilities before us, we must wait, hope, and see.